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Saturday, January 17, 2015

The supreme (court) feminism of Jane Austen



The Jane Austen world took note yesterday of her finally being cited in a US Supreme Court opinion, in this case one signed by Scalia, in which the decision to apply a harsh federal statute in order to impose severe sentencing penalties hinged on interpretation of a 1934 federal statue’s usage of the word “accompany”:

“In 1934…just as today, to “accompany” someone meant to “go with” him. See Oxford English Dictionary…defining “accompany” as: “To go in company with, to go along with”. The word does not, as Whitfield contends, connote movement over a substantial distance. It was, and still is, perfectly natural to speak of accompanying someone over a relatively short distance, for example: from one area within a bank “to the vault”; “to the altar” at a wedding; “up the stairway”; or into, out of, or across a room. English literature is replete with examples. See, e.g., C. Dickens, David Copperfield… (Uriah “ACCOMPANIED me into Mr. Wickfield’s room”); J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice...(Elizabeth “ACCOMPANIED her out of the room”).

When I first read the above excerpt, I was confused, and it took a minute for me to realize that it was not carefully worded, and so was inadvertently misleading. It should have been written as follows:
 The word does not, as Whitfield contends, SOLELY connote movement over a substantial distance. It was, and still is, ALSO perfectly natural to speak of accompanying someone over a relatively short distance…”

The defendant’s attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to interpret the word “accompany” in the statute narrowly, so as to ONLY refer to long distance movement.

Now, let me first be clear-- I entirely agree with the Court’s holding, and note that this decision was unanimous, meaning that the entire liberal wing of the Supreme Court joined with Scalia and his conservative wing on it. Okay, so the defendant probably did not imagine or desire that his elderly hostage would suffer a heart attack when he forced her into another room in her house, but that is what actually and tragically happened, and so a strict karmic justice seems to have been decisive in this instance – the defendant was unlucky, maybe, but he assumed that risk and his victim paid a terrible price.

But aside from those very real-life and significant legal considerations, I do have a small curmudgeonly axe to grind with the choice of fictional textual examples in the decision. The quotes from Dickens and Austen about characters accompanying one another over a very small distance are not the most on-point examples. Why? Because they do not involve NONCONSENSUAL accompaniment!  

And perhaps that non-onpointness should not be surprising, given that although the words “accompany” and “force” seem antithetical, they were strung together by the draftsman of the 1934 Act of Congress.

All the same, I wondered whether Scalia’s law clerk, had (s)he analyzed more deeply, and then had gone back to the original sources, i.e., Austen’s novels themselves, rather than the OED, could have found better examples.

And I just determined, after less than 10 minutes of searching, that there actually ARE a handful of very apt examples in JA’s novels of nonconsensual accompaniment, which would have been much more satisfying in supporting the Court’s rationale for its decision on that crucial point of statutory interpretation. And here they are, without further ado.

First, we have Fanny Price who finds herself unable to avoid being accompanied from the Parsonage back to the big house at Mansfield Park:
“Fanny's hurry increased; and without in the least expecting Edmund's attendance, she would have hastened away alone; but the general pace was quickened, and they all ACCOMPANIED her into the house, through which it was necessary to pass.”

Second there are two examples in Emma, both pertaining to Jane Fairfax.

The first has to do with Emma’s speculations about why Jane was not forced to accompany the Dixons to Ireland:

“Considering the very particular friendship between her and Mrs. Dixon, you could hardly have expected her to be excused from ACCOMPANYING Colonel and Mrs. Campbell [to Ireland]."

The second is about a very different, musical sort of “accompaniment” which nonetheless perfectly fits the context of the Supreme Court’s decision, because the coercion of accompaniment is foregrounded:

“One ACCOMPANIMENT to her song took her agreeably by surprize—a second, slightly but correctly taken by Frank Churchill. Her pardon was duly begged at the close of the song, and every thing usual followed. He was accused of having a delightful voice, and a perfect knowledge of music; which was properly denied; and that he knew nothing of the matter, and had no voice at all, roundly asserted. They sang together once more; and Emma would then resign her place to Miss Fairfax, whose performance, both vocal and instrumental, she never could attempt to conceal from herself, was infinitely superior to her own.”

Then, after Frank has in effect coerced Jane into accompanying him in song for too long a time, Knightley angrily intervenes:

"Miss Bates, are you mad, to let your niece sing herself hoarse in this manner? Go, and interfere. They have no mercy on her."

And finally, in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 22, we have the best example of forced accompaniment in the Austen canon, courtesy of that Montoni of forced coercion, General Tilney. As the host at the Abbey, and also (implicitly) as a suitor for the heroine’s hand in marriage, although she does not realize it, he wants to show his digs off to her:

“Something had been said the evening before of her being shown over the house, and he now offered himself as her conductor; and though Catherine had hoped to explore it ACCOMPANIED only by his daughter, it was a proposal of too much happiness in itself, under any circumstances, not to be gladly accepted; for she had been already eighteen hours in the abbey, and had seen only a few of its rooms. The netting-box, just leisurely drawn forth, was closed with joyful haste, and she was ready to attend him in a moment. "And when they had gone over the house, he promised himself moreover the pleasure of ACCOMPANYING her into the shrubberies and garden." She curtsied her acquiescence. "But perhaps it might be more agreeable to her to make those her first object. The weather was at present favourable, and at this time of year the uncertainty was very great of its continuing so. Which would she prefer? He was equally at her service. Which did his daughter think would most accord with her fair friend's wishes? But he thought he could discern. Yes, he certainly read in Miss Morland's eyes a judicious desire of making use of the present smiling weather. But when did she judge amiss? The abbey would be always safe and dry. He yielded implicitly, and would fetch his hat and attend them in a moment." He left the room, and Catherine, with a disappointed, anxious face, began to speak of her unwillingness that he should be taking them out of doors against his own inclination, under a mistaken idea of pleasing her; but she was stopped by Miss Tilney's saying, with a little confusion, "I believe it will be wisest to take the morning while it is so fine; and do not be uneasy on my father's account; he always walks out at this time of day."

That passage perfectly captures the coercion thinly concealed beneath the General’s superficial politeness. He, like Don Corleone, truly makes Catherine a hostly offer she cannot refuse—and then JA allows Catherine, her innocent, but very insightful, heroine to be the one to unwittingly show that the Emperor is unclothed, when Catherine “with a disappointed, anxious face, began to speak of her unwillingness that he should be taking them out of doors against his own inclination, under a mistaken idea of pleasing her.”

And then, in a fitting counterpoint, when Henry Tilney finally grows a pair, and revolts against his father’s selfish dictatorial control, we read:

“He steadily refused to ACCOMPANY his father into Herefordshire, an engagement formed almost at the moment to promote the dismissal of Catherine, and as steadily declared his intention of offering her his hand. The general was furious in his anger, and they parted in dreadful disagreement.”

Bravo Catherine and bravo Henry!

And in closing, perhaps the largest point I take away from the above examples, which all involve a woman being forced to accompany a man, is that Jane Austen herself would have concurred in the Supreme Court’s decision to impose a harsher sentence on a man who made a tragic decision to force a woman to accompany him against her will.  

An issue which sadly remains in the forefront of our criminal justice systems, as women rightly around the world rise up against such coerced accompaniments in every form.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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